General rules of writing

I forgot the source. October 6, 1995

Tod Kennedy

  • FINDING A TOPIC. If the paper is to be argumentative, the student must decide what stance to take: is he for whatever it is or against it? Is X the correct action to take, or is Y? Once he is clear about what he wants to say, then he must go about saying it as clearly and concisely as possible.
  • FOCUS (find a topic and narrow it down to something manageable for the length of the paper, then make sure that everything in the paper either supports or explains that topic)
  • SUPPORT (give definitions and concrete, specific examples that back up the argument the writer is making)
  • ORGANIZATION (everything in the paper is laid out in the most logical way possible to aid the reader in following the argument: the thesis statement, then the major points the writer wants to make, each with its appropriate support, and with necessary connections between main points so that the reader can follow easily and doesn’t get lost. Major points should be set up so that you give your strongest point first, your next strongest point last, and the rest ranged in between)
  • and finally, CONVENTIONS OF STANDARD WRITTEN ENGLISH (spelling, punctuation, usage, etc.).

When the writer thinks he’s finished, he needs to be as objective as possible, look at his paper and ask himself a series of questions: what am I saying? Did I say it? Is it clear? Can I sum up my argument in one sentence? Are there places where my logic breaks down or I haven’t provided any (or enough) support for my assertions? Are there places where my reader could get lost? Is there anything in here that doesn’t belong, doesn’t add to or help my argument? Have I anticipated and answered the questions that the other side might raise? Is my introduction interesting enough that my reader will want to keep reading, or will it put him to sleep? Is my conclusion merely a summary of what I’ve already said, or does my essay end with a memorable punch that grabs the reader? Then proof read, proof read, proof read, and then proof read again. Don’t be content with running spell check. No matter how good your thinking is, if the paper is sloppy and full of errors, it puts off the reader; his estimation of the essay and its writer drop.

The teacher is right about passive voice. It slows down your paper and makes it ho hum rather than dynamic. The passive requires extra words that clutter up your sentences and bog them down. Get rid of unnecessary words, bureaucratic prose, and as many prepositional phrases as possible. Learn to write crisp, clean sentences with lively verbs and carefully chosen words.


(from the student’s paper) First of all, it can be seen from casually perusing any history book that great men and their deeds seemingly permeate the entire spectrum of history, a spectrum which has not been completely barred by any geographical area or time period.


Great men have impressed their immortal footprints over all recorded history.

(This may mean that you have to write more to fill up the page, but you’ll be getting rid of wasted words that bog down and confuse the reader, and adding clear, meaty support and development for your argument!)